by Dan Johnson
The red scrawl and cutesy awning allude to a heartland feel. The menu offers American classics like pastrami sandwiches and pancake breakfasts with a full complement of Mexican grill items. The place keeps blue collar hours — 4am to 4pm. The woman working the griddle is coy but friendly. She takes each order with a sort of wide-eyed incredulity that feels perpetually poised on the brink of a girlish giggle.
This is Martha’s Kitchen. If you squint hard enough, it is a perfect replica of that down home, quick service, greasy spoon you automatically associate with quaint college towns.
The food is impossibly inexpensive. For $7.59, I get a short stack of fluffy pancakes and a bean and cheese burrito. Each is flavorful and filling enough in its own right to serve as an individual meal.
Guide on taste and price alone and you’ve got a little slice of Americana right here in your back yard through which to trespass on a nostalgic fantasy past whenever you so desire.
Yet, there is that irksome and problematic issue of reality.
Martha’s is part and parcel of a particularly bleak stretch of 4th St. Look no further than the profusion of orange needle caps and languid, dazed individuals strewn about the street. There’s a needle exchange directly across the street from Martha’s. It doesn’t take a staggering amount of savvy to see this for what it is: smack alley.
Different blocks of Skid Row owe their distinct essence to unique facets of geolocal pharmacology. For instance, the block of 5th St behind the Central Police Station is uniquely active due to the fellows selling “dollar joints” (of spice) concurrent to a steady market in rock or crystal.
Down on 4th St between San Pedro and Towne, downers are the order of the day.
Martha’s is not a happy oasis from this chemical blight. The cooler inside is stocked to the gills with inexpensive tall boys and forties. “No Drinking On Premises,” the signs remind you as you shell out $3.75 for forty ounces of Miller High Life.
There is also a perturbing lack of windows. It is nigh on impossible to see what transpires inside Martha’s without walking in. Further, the jerry-rigged seating area is completely obscured from the counter and doorway.
Of greater concern is the fellow with the decently new street gear who is staring at me as if to say, “bleed on my knife or shit on my dick.” When I adjourn to a booth to take down my pancakes and burrito, he shifts to the front of the restaurant. He is the only one who notices me taking photos. When I leave, he returns to the tables in the back.
You do the math.
This is typically the part in the food review where I weave a few choice cracks about the absurdity of cheap food in a contemporary dystopia framed by mankind’s willful refusal to accept the terms of his own tawdry existence perpetuated by a pretentious clinging to false markers of status.
I have no such commentary for Martha’s, just a deep-seated sorrow for hustlers and users alike. Downtown is stocked with abundant reminders (people dealing spice behind a police station for instance) that dealing will never cease. Pushing is the bastard love child of capitalist profit-seeking, market legitimized conduct, the deification of outlaw culture and a profound and overwhelming discontentment with the terms of society.
It is an ugly inheritance that will likely exist longer than any pocket park or yearly street fair. Housing will neither solve nor mitigate a crisis plotted soul and psyche deep. It is an essential part of Downtown that is as old as the dust. It is fucked and unavoidable.
Yet, there’s a silver lining. Namely pancakes and cheap burritos.
I award Martha’s a “1” on the binary and hereby advise all future patrons to wear closed toed shoes.